The First Modern School Shooter Feels Responsible for the Rest
In a prison two-and-a-half hours from the scene of the UCSB murders sits the killer who started it all, with the first high-profile school shooting more than three decades ago.
“With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible,” Brenda Ann Spencer told the parole board back in 2001. “What if they got the idea from what I did?”
Spencer was 16 on Jan. 29, 1979, when she opened fire with a .22 rifle on Grover Cleveland Elementary School across from her home in San Diego, killing the principal and the custodian while wounding eight youngsters and a police officer.
“I don’t like Mondays,” she famously replied when asked her motive.
Spencer has since said she does not remember making the remark that inspired a song by the Boomtown Rats and became a kind of anthem for many of the school shooters who followed. She has said she also does not recall telling a cop, “It was a lot of fun seeing children shot.”
During a 2009 parole hearing, her most recent, she insisted that she had not intended to shoot anybody.
“So, why did you commit this crime?” the head parole commissioner asked.
“Because I wanted to die,” she said. “I was trying to commit suicide.”
“Why pick the school across the street?” the commissioner asked.
“Because I knew that if I fired on the school the police would show up, and they would shoot me and kill me,” she said. “And every time I had tried suicide in the previous year I had screwed it up.”
“Why did you have to shoot the people at the school?” the commissioner asked.
“I wasn’t specifically aiming at people,” she said. “I was shooting into the parking lot.”
The commissioner inquired how many rounds she had fired, and she said she did not recall.
“Well, that’s pretty good shooting to hit as many folks as you did if you’re not trying to hit anybody from across the street,” the commissioner noted.
“I don’t remember aiming at anybody,” Spencer insisted.
“Do you remember them taking cover?” the commissioner asked.
“Vaguely,” she said.
The commissioner asked if she remembered the police coming, and she said she did.
“You hit one of those fellows, too,” the commissioner noted.
“Uh-hmm,” Spencer said.
The commissioner reminded her that she had eventually surrendered.
“[You] put your gun down,” the commissioner observed. “You didn’t follow through with your plan.”
“No, I had gotten scared,” she said.
“This gun was a gift?”
“Yes,” she responded.
The commissioner observed that Spencer had described a dark side to her father, while others described him as a decent man.
“He liked to keep appearances up, that everything was fine in the house,” Spencer now said.
“What about your mother?” the commissioner asked.
“She just wasn’t there,” Spencer said.
“But your father was always there.”
“And apparently you two slept in the same bed?”
She had submitted a written statement in which she alleged that her father had begun fondling her when she was 9 and had sexually assaulted her virtually every night.
The commissioner said they would get back to all that. He returned to the shooting.
“You didn’t go to school that day?” the commissioner asked.
“No, I wasn’t feeling good,” she replied.
She said she had been under the influence of alcohol, pot, and downers.
“They made me numb so I didn’t feel anything,” she said.
She confirmed that she had heard the kids in the school across the street.
“A lot of kids laughing and doing their thing?” the commissioner asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did that upset you?”
“It didn’t upset you that they seemed to have happier lives?”
“No,” she said. “I was just set on committing suicide.”
“I am sorry you had to go through everything you went through, but what I’m trying to do is find out why you would open fire and kill two people and hurt so many others,” the commissioner said. “You indicate you weren’t really trying to hit anybody—but you did a heck of a job of hitting a lot of people.”
“The only thing I was concentrating on was getting the police there so that they could shoot me,” she said.
“Well, you could have shot out one window of the school and the police would have come.”
“I didn’t think that.”
“You didn’t have any anger at the children?”
“You weren’t trying to hit anybody?”
“Not that I remember.”
The commissioner asked if she recalled saying she had fired on the schoolyard because “I don’t like Mondays.”
“I might have said that,” she replied. “It would have been the drugs and the alcohol talking.”
The commissioner quoted the police negotiator’s report, which said she had told him, ”It was fun to watch the children that had red and blue ski jackets on, as they made perfect targets.” The negotiator added that she told him she “liked to watch them squirm around after they had been shot.”
“It’s entirely possible I said that,” Spencer told the parole board.
“Do you have any idea why you’d go out of your way to harm so many innocent people?” the commissioner asked
“I didn’t consider that other people would get hurt,” she said. “I didn’t think it all the way through”
“Several children were injured by gunshot wounds. The principal of the elementary school, Burton Wragg, age 53, had gone to the aid of the students and was subsequently shot himself,” the commissioner said. “Michael Suchar, age 56, school custodian, went to the aid of Mr. Wragg and was also shot.”
“Uh-hmm,” Spencer said.
“You’re shooting people as they come to the aid of others,” he said. “You’re shooting these people as they become targets, and yet you told me that you didn’t intend to hit anyone.”
“No,” she said.
“Are you pretty good with a rifle?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I guess.”
She was asked if any adults had seen danger signs before the shooting.
“A month before I was arrested, my [high school] counselor took me to see a psychiatrist,” she reported.
She said the psychiatrist had recommended she be hospitalized as a danger to herself and to others.
“My dad told them that nothing was wrong with me and everything was fine, and leave us alone,” she recalled.
That had been just before Christmas. She had asked her father for a radio.
“I don’t know why he bought me a gun,” she said.
The San Diego District Attorney’s Office sent a representative to the hearing. He informed the board that on the Saturday before the shooting Spencer had told another teen that something big was going to happen on Monday that would be on TV and radio.
“On Monday morning, January 29th, she asked her father if she could stay home from school because she didn’t feel well,” the deputy district attorney reported. “Her father left home for work around 7 o’clock in the morning. Then the inmate proceeded to commit one of the most notorious crimes in the history of this nation.”
He went on: “At 8:30 a.m., the children were lining up to enter Cleveland Elementary School… She picked up her .22 caliber, semiautomatic scoped rifle and began shooting children. Principal Burton Wragg heard the shooting and ran out to get the children out of harm’s way, and the inmate shot him in the chest and killed him. The head custodian, Michael Suchar, known as ‘Mr. Mike’ to the children, ran to Mr. Wragg’s aid, and the inmate shot him in the chest and killed him. She shot eight children, and she shot a responding police officer, Robert Robb, in the neck. But for the heroic efforts of a police officer who risked his life to drive a trash truck in front of her residence to block her field of fire, no doubt further children would have been shot.”
The D.A. representative added that Spencer had complained to the police negotiator that the custodian had tried to get everybody off the school grounds.
“She shot him because, by her own words, he was making it more difficult for her to shoot the kids,” the representative said. “The number of shots fired and the number of vital hits speaks of incredibly accurate, directed shooting, and these were moving targets.”
The representative further reported that blood and urine samples taken after Spencer’s arrest tested clean. He concluded that no drugs or alcohol had been talking when she said she just didn’t like Mondays.
“Basically, what she’s telling this board are a series of untruths,” the representative concluded.
A lawyer representing Spencer spoke next. He suggested that the testing of the time may have simply failed to detect the intoxicants. He allowed that Spencer’s father had never “owned up” to sexually abusing her. But the lawyer also noted that while visiting Spencer at a juvenile-detention facility after her arrest, the father had met a girl who resembled his daughter, but was younger.
“[The father] then went on and had a sexual relationship with her and married her,” the lawyer alleged.
The commissioner read into the record several victim-impact statements. One was from Wilfred Suchar, son of the murdered custodian, Michael Suchar. He said his wife had heard on the radio of a shooting at the school and called him at work. He had gone to his parent’s home to tell his mother, Valentina.
“We found her singing as she gardened in the backyard,” the son recalled. “We were all very upset and shocked on the way to the hospital, because no one would tell us Michael’s condition. When we arrived, we found him not in the hospital room, but down in the basement, dead. He had died trying to help the children and Principal Wragg, killed by Ms. Spencer trying to liven up her Monday.”
He said that his mother never recovered.
“She was lonely and scared, and became more and more depressed,” he said. “There didn’t seem much I or the rest of the family could do to help her.”
He went on to say that his father “had gotten out alive from some rough times in the Pacific during World War II. He was then a part of the Allied occupying forces in northern Germany. Here he met his wife-to-be, Valentina. She, because of the language and cultural differences in the United States, always counted on him to manage their affairs. Suddenly, he was gone. I think her premature death in 1991 was at least partly the result of this traumatic experience.”
He ended by saying on behalf of his deceased parents and the surviving members of the family that they opposed parole for Spencer.
“My question is, will there be another boring Monday for her?” he asked.
The custodian’s brother, Andrew Suchar also submitted a statement, noting that Michael had survived two ship sinkings during the war only to be killed by a 16-year-old in a schoolyard. The brother said that although his widowed sister-in-law lived until 1991, “her life actually ended in January 1979. The victims are not only those killed, but the survivors who live the tragedy for the rest of their lives.”
And then there was a statement by Steve Wragg, son of Principal Burton Wragg.
“My dad and Mike were the only two to die that day,” he said, “The kids that they were trying to save all lived. Some of them were seriously injured, but all survived. I hope that somehow my dad and Mike know this.”
There was also a statement from the principal’s daughter.
“People have told me that I look like him, act like him, that my kids are the spitting image of him,” she said. “When the kids hear this, they can’t possibly relate to such statements, because they have never met their grandfather, and they know they never will, because I’ve told them over and over again that he is dead, that he was murdered by Brenda Spencer.”
The daughter spoke of scattering her father’s ashes in the desert.
“The place he loved the most. The small ceremony solidified my understanding of love and eternity, and of our ties to one another as human beings. Yet, while it was all happening, so beautiful, so serene, I couldn’t get over the perverse violence associated with my dad’s passing. I still can’t.”
She described going to the school to collect her father’s personal effects.
“The blood hadn’t been scrubbed from where he had fallen on the concrete. I walked around this place, not stepping on the splotches and the puddles, and didn’t want to be hugged by anyone. Nothing can console me ever.”
She then spoke words that have gained ever more truth after ever more mass shootings.
“A person can be attending school and be gunned down.”
She added, “It happened here first.”
Other statements came from children now grown.
“My name is Crystal Hardy,” one began. “I was 10 years old when I was shot by Brenda Spencer.”
She described arriving at school and hearing shots and seeing the principal and the custodian lying dead. A teacher had called for her to duck.
“But I wasn’t able to run from the bullet Brenda had for me,” Hardy said.
She recalled lying in the nurse’s office, bleeding as bullets crashed through the window.
“I was greatly comforted when the policemen arrived to carry me away. I can still remember the pool of blood on the nurse’s bed, and the terror didn’t end there. Later, of course, I had nightmares, and to this day I fear that someone is pointing a gun at me when I’m walking in open places.”
“And recently, my boyfriend wanted me to go to a shooting range with him because it’s a sport he enjoys, and although I was hesitant, I thought, ‘Well, it’s been a long time, I’ll probably be OK.’ And I sat there as he shot the silhouette, but he had to stop because I started frantically crying. It was completely uncontrollable.”
There was also a statement by a parent, Francis Stile, whose two daughters attended the school. He recalled “the phone call from the neighbor who said there had been a shooting at Cleveland, the frustration of not being able to get near the school because the incident was still going on, the terror in my wife’s eyes, her screams of anguish at not knowing whether our girls were involved, the phone call from the hospital telling us that one of them had been wounded, looking at the bullet hole in her right elbow and the bullet burns on the inside if each thigh where a bullet had passed between her legs.”
The other daughter had been saved from harm when a notebook with a pouch of pens stopped a bullet. Both girls had witnessed the death of the principal and the custodian.
“They still speak of hearing the gurgle in Mr. Wragg as he lay there dying… If such evil can occur in such a benign and tranquil setting, then it can happen anywhere and probably will.”
A former student named Cam Miller attended the hearing in person and offered the last statement.
“I was 9 years old when I was shot,” he began.
He recalled that his mother had just dropped him at school directly opposite Spencer’s home and he had been starting up the sidewalk when he saw the bodies of the principal and the custodian. He had then blacked out as a bullet passed within an inch of his heart, exiting his chest. He survived but remained terrorized.
“I would have to call to my mother two or three times each night to walk me around the inside of my house, just so I knew that Brenda Spencer was not inside my house,” he recalled.
He had been called to testify against her.
“I walked into court and saw this monster glaring at me,” he remembered. “The look at Brenda Foster gave me was enough to scare any young child to death.”
Thirty years later, Miller beheld her in another proceeding and asked the board not to parole her. The board denied her and she will not be eligible for another hearing until 2019.
In the meantime, she will sit as inmate W14944 in the California Women’s Institution, seeming to see no irony in having used heated metal to brand the words “Courage” and “Pride” across her chest. She is now 51 and will no doubt hear of more school shootings and ask herself if they got the idea from what she did on that long ago Monday.